Specialty growers encouraged to share stories of their farms

By Kay Shipman

Farmers who work so close to the earth probably underestimate the sense of wonder and interest their environment and everyday tasks instill in consumers, a roomful of specialty growers heard last week.

Janice Person, a national communications consultant who works with farmers, encouraged her audience to remember a favorite childhood story, how they knew every detail and the power of sharing information through stories. “In today’s world, storytelling is a phenomenon. It’s everywhere I go,” Person said in her keynote address to the Illinois Specialty Crop Conference in Springfield.

Person illustrated her point by sharing one of her favorite stories, her first professional interview with an elderly farmer known to all as Mr. Ray in Monroe, Louisiana. Taking Person for a ride in his truck, Mr. Ray stopped at a field, pulled out a shovel and invited Person to examine the scoop of soil. “He asked, ‘what do you see?’ I was captivated,” she remembered.

While Person admitted she wasn’t exactly sure what she should be looking for (although her family had gardens), she eyed the soil as the farmer, who recently turned 90, pointed out lighter and darker areas, explaining his soil had high clay content. Then he asked if she saw holes in the soil and what those might be. Mr. Ray explained the holes were left by roots and his use of no-till farming.

“I know you know this,” Person said to her farmer audience, “but understand the excitement.”

Person said she was learning about agriculture and about farmers and how they think. “He was thinking of his grandson, Michael, and his great-grandbaby, Dorothy – he was thinking about them back then in the early ‘90s,” she added. “I didn’t realize what farmers did for the environment.”

“Those (farm) stories make the world seem so simple when we need that now,” Person said. “Take something really complex. How can you make something like that seem simple to someone like me?”

One of the farmers in the audience, Regan Joehl of Greene Fields Farm told FarmWeek, “I got a better understanding of the driving forces behind the unexpected response we have found in sharing our own farm’s story with the general public. As farmers, we take for granted what we do, but the stories behind our day-to-day life are in high demand.”

Person pointed out consumers’ thoughts about agriculture are centered around food – they want something good. People, especially younger people, want to dedicate themselves to a goal and an ideal. However, because society has become so mobile with children and teens specializing their interests, Person questioned whether people are exposed to broad experiences or many people who are different from themselves. “The mobility we have as a country means we don’t have deep connections,” she said. “The lack of connections means we are less willing to try new things, but it means you turn to the tools you have” to feel familiar with your environment. And storytelling is one of those tools.

Person’s comments resonated with Joehl, a Greene County Farm Bureau member who owns a you-pick pumpkin farm. “Janice pointed out that many of my fellow millennials will have upwards of 20 addresses they have already called home by this point in their lives,” he said. “Even more, thousands of bright young people are coming into the workforce, having followed the blueprint society tells them they need for success, but they have no clue what they want to do with their lives because their experiences are so limited. They are longing for roots, for a good story to belong to. They are longing for a slice of what we experience on our farms.”

Person proposed the general public also has become more skeptical and less trusting, and that skeptical attitude is applied to food production. “They want to know why you do what you do when you grow food,” she said. “How do we find these people to tell them accurate stories?”

The consultant encouraged farmers to use stories to tell about their business. “Tell a compelling story,” she said. “They don’t have to be controversial.”

Person shared an example of a farmer who told about an app he uses to monitor his irrigation systems. That led to a conversation about how the app technology helps him to be a good steward of natural resources. When she asked an Arizona lettuce grower about E. coli threats, the farmer explained he uses cameras to monitor his romaine lettuce fields and track where a coyote enters a field. The farmer finds and flags that area so none of the potentially contaminated lettuce is marketed. “Who thought farmers cared that much about food safety?” she said.

“I don’t think any other industry is better suited to storytelling than food and farming,” Person said. “You have the most beautiful environment.”

“That really resonated with me,” Joehle said afterward, “because it is easy to get down on how we are perceived as farmers. But now I feel better equipped and motivated to continue to tell the awesome story that I am so blessed and proud to be a part of out here on the farm.”

This story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.